Ambassador encourages students to seek their purpose

July 5 2007

Cynthia Shepard Perry is ISU grad

As a teen-ager growing up in Lost Creek Township outside Terre Haute, Cynthia Shepard Perry set her sights on a life of public service. Perry wanted to become a U.S. ambassador. She even had a country in mind. She wanted to work to improve the lives of people in Kenya, an East African nation that was struggling to achieve independence from Britain.

With the help of her former principal at Otter Creek High School, she developed a 25-year plan to achieve her goal. The plan called for her to complete higher education through a doctoral degree, obtain high-level employment, be active in a political party and pursue government service in Washington, D.C.

In an effort to jump-start her career in public service, Perry explained her plan to the most successful local political leader of the day, Terre Haute Mayor Ralph Tucker.

A Democrat who ran Terre Haute for 20 years from 1948-68, Tucker was the consummate machine politician. After listening to Perry outline her 25-year plan, he told her it “was a very interesting proposal, but he didn’t know where he could put me. If I wanted to work in politics, he told me I needed to go to Gary or Indianapolis, where there were a lot of black people,” Perry recalls.

Not wanting to leave her home town, Perry “went around the corner to the Republican Party and gave them the same story. They said, ‘We’ll hire you right now.’ ”

She’s been a Republican ever since, serving under the past three GOP presidents.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in political science and education from Indiana State University in 1968 and a doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts, followed by a career in higher education that included several assignments in Africa, Perry achieved her dream, even if the country wasn’t quite the one she had envisioned.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed her chief of the education and human resources division of the U.S. Agency for International Development. In 1986, Reagan named her ambassador to Sierra Leone. Three years later, Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, appointed her ambassador to Burundi.

In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed her U.S. executive director of the African Development Bank, based in Tunis, Tunisia. Perry plans to retire from foreign service this fall. Every chance she gets, she talks to students, in hopes of inspiring others to serve.

Her current position is “like an ambassador to 53 countries,” she says. The United States is the largest donor among the 73 nations that contribute funding to the bank.

By carefully weighing requests for loans, the bank teaches lessons about accountability, democracy and human rights while providing funding for schools, bridges and other projects aimed at combating poverty and helping African nations develop, she says.

Ambassador Perry wants to ensure that Africa benefits from its abundant natural resources without being exploited by other nations.

“Africa is the wealthiest continent in the world, and relatively untouched. You have many governments now trying to go into Africa, and I would say under the pretext of development - to take out oil, uranium and other minerals,” Perry said. “The resources are there for the world. I don’t believe Africa wants to hold on to them, but they should receive fair market value in exchange. I would like to make sure that for what those other countries are taking out, they’re giving back.”

Perry is particularly concerned about China’s entry into the African market.

“They will come in and build a school or recreation center, bringing all their workers in from China. They live in the embassy or on the compound and don’t associate with other people. When they talk about developing human resources, they’re talking about developing their own to do the job, but not the Africans. This is a little different from the way we’ve gone about it. People in Africa need that support to build their skills,” she said.

Addressing a media and politics class recently at her alma mater - a class that included her grandson, Bryan Shepard, a psychology major - Perry stressed to students the importance of having a purpose in life.

“I always tell my grandson you were not a biological accident. You were meant to be. There is a place for you,” she said. “You have to find what that purpose is. Nobody can tell you. If you have a purpose in life, you may take a job but you understand it’s a job, or a career that may pay you a sizable retirement when you’re finished, but a purpose never stops. You have a purpose until the day you die. Once you find that purpose, the way will open up for you.”

Citing the rapid communications and travel that have essentially made the world smaller, Perry stressed to students the importance of global awareness and participation.

“Do you see yourself as a world citizen?” she asked. “The world’s problems are all connected. Our futures are tied to the world.”

Photos: Cynthia Shepard Perry
Ambassador Cynthia Shepard Perry, a Vigo County native and Indiana State University graduate who is U.S. executive director of the African Development Bank, addresses a media and politics class June 26 at ISU.
Perry class
Students in a media and politics listen intently as Ambassador Cynthia Shepard Perry, U.S. executive director of the African Development Bank, speaks June 26 at Indiana State University. Perry is a Vigo County native and an Indiana State graduate.

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or

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Story Highlights

Ambassador Cynthia Shepard Perry, a 1968 ISU graduate who is U.S. executive director of the African Development Bank, plans to retire from the foreign service this fall. Perry, a Vigo County native, spoke recently to a political science class about fulfilling her life's plan. She encouraged students to find their own sense of purpose and be active in the global community.

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